Savanah Sewell on the final year of grickle grass
Story By Sara Helm
Have you heard of Grickle Grass? London’s legendary music festival with the unmistakable name is rolling out its last party ever. Taking place in the London Children’s Museum, the festival is engaging family fun during the day and a surreal sensory overload by night. Boasting a can’t-miss lineup of Canadian music, including London’s own Shad, this year’s festival has set out to be the event of the summer season. Savanah Sewell – working in collaboration with her partner, Adam Sturgeon, and a group of assiduous volunteers – tells us what to expect for Grickle Grass’ tenth year.
How did Grickle Grass begin? What were your initial intentions for it? Why is it called Grickle Grass?
I had started to gain interest in throwing events in weird spaces. Someone had told me that you can throw an event at the Children’s Museum – actually, someone had said you could get married there. So the wheels started turning. I drove there one day and asked, “Can you rent this space out?”, and they said yes. I was introduced to Ryan Craven in April 2010 and we threw the very first Grickle Grass that July. He knew Amanda Conlon – who is now the Executive Director of the Children’s Museum – but at the time she was the Director of Visitor Experience, and Ryan suggested we go for a beer and we pitched her our idea. She was like, “Ya, sure.” That was the first Grickle Grass. After that we moved it to May, because we wanted to get the beginning of festival season, as well when as students would still be around.
I recently found the big sheets of paper we were using to be creative while trying to think of a name. We knew we wanted to have sustainability components. I am obsessed with Dr Seuss and we kept coming back to the Lorax; “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful whole lot, Nothing’s going to get better. It’s not.” I still identify with that idea. We started flipping through this children’s book pretty obsessively, this group of adults – well, I was 21.
You threw your first festival when you were 21!?
(Laughs) Yeah, I spent my twenties having a festival – I grew up, during this really critical time in my twenties, with this festival alongside me. Having fails and wins along the way, throughout my twenties.
So Grickle Grass has a whole different level of significance for you.
Totally. It’s a really strange consistent in my life, but it’s also chaotic. My career has also evolved a lot in the last ten years, because of Grickle. As my career has grown, the way that we do things at the festival has grown. I’ve been able to use it as leverage when getting other freelance gigs, I’ve been able to bring in friends who are professional lighting folks. Worlds collide. It’s such a huge part of my identity.
You’re not from London, so you probably hadn’t grown up with the Children’s Museum like so many of us have. When did you realize you had tapped into this crazy experience?
You’re right – I did not grow up in London. However, my parents are from here. My parents are Beal high school graduates. I have long ties to London, I spent a lot of my childhood here. We would come up for the summer. I actually have photos of me in the original Dino Cave and the Arctic room. I do remember the Children’s Museum, and I remember Storybook Gardens in its original format. I was very familiar with the Children’s Museum when I got here – I do have that nostalgia. Maybe not as much as someone whose family had a pass and went every weekend (laughs) but, I definitely was there as a kid.
‘‘It’s important that we collaborate and communicate and see each other, because we’re all in this together.’’
The nostalgia is a huge aspect of what makes Grickle Grass so special and unique, can you speak to any other aspects of it that make it a rare experience?
Nostalgia is part of it, but also the space. I think even if you’ve never been to the Children’s Museum, it’s such an epic experience. That’s what we wanted. And that’s why I love throwing events in weird spots, it makes your experience so much better, or different, or unique. That really sets it apart. When you look at the mid-level festival circuit in Canada everyone is doing their thing in their own community in the best way that they can, but I don’t think anyone is throwing a music festival in a children’s museum for adults. We realized that pretty quickly. People would hear the legend of Grickle Grass – so many bands have played the festival! – and now it’s this talking point in the music community, which is also very cool. In different points in my career I’ve worked for different bands or at different festivals, and I’ll see someone and they’ll say “You look really familiar....” and I get to say, “Yeah, you played my festival!” It reminds us that Canada is just not that big, and people in the industry tend to know each other.
The other thing that makes Grickle so special is our daytime children’s programming, which is why the Lorax fits so well. It is about being yourself, and that it’s ok to have fun and let loose and be a kid again. Especially now, watching my own child grow, to see him experience the world with such wonder – especially with the shit show of our world. To take this moment and be exactly who you want to be with exactly who you want to be with, in a safe space – that’s what really sets it apart. It’s a party with a purpose. We give money to Growing Chef’s and we give money to the Children’s Museum and that’s always been part of the mandate. We feel like it’s a good relationship. It’s important that we collaborate and communicate and see each other, because we’re all in this together. There’s been so many kids that have grown up in the Grickle Grass world as well, which has been so cool. Every year has been so community focused with so many remarkable partners. Every year we try something else. We haven’t been afraid, which has been the exciting part. We’ve never had to be rigid to a format. There’s day and night, but as far as programming is concerned, it’s always something different.
How does Grickle Grass look differently from five or ten years ago?
Attendance is one way Grickle Grass has changed. We’ve had our ebbs and flows but definitely we’ve seen steady growth, which is cool. It’s cool to see people you don’t know attending, which, I think, is a good sign that you’re doing something right. It’s cool to see people talking about it in the community that you don’t know.
It’s evolved from a programming standpoint, for sure. We’ve tried things and realized, “Oh, that doesn’t work.” One year we tried to charge $40, and very quickly realized that’s not accessible for our community.
We’ve seen so many Children’s Museum employees grow and evolve. Growing Chefs had just started in our first year and they just had their ten year anniversary.
‘‘To take this moment and be exactly who you want to be with exactly who you want to be with, in a safe space – that’s what really sets it apart.’’
What are you most proud that this festival has achieved?
I would like to think that we have paved the way for folks to program more obscure and interesting bands – musicians, artists, performance art – in London. We take really great pride in that work. We know the market, we know what’s here, we know what’s going on. I feel really proud of the legacy of musicians, across Canada, who have played. We’ve had artists who have gone on to win Junos, win the Polaris Prize, have gone on to tour the world. We’re so honoured to have had so many incredible artists and musicians across this stage – that makes me feel proud.
I’m also proud of the opportunity to work with the community and build and audience for those bands here, and have them interact. Recognizing that if that band wasn’t coming into town for this show, this audience wouldn’t get to see them.
Megan Arnold told me this incredible story about how she skipped her prom after party when she was 18 to go to Grickle Grass. She saw Maylee Todd, who is a Philippine artist, and it changed her life! She had never seen anyone with the same background as her on stage performing in that way before, and it changed her life. Holy shit, what a moment. Megan did our poster this year –
She’s played Grickle Grass before!
She’s played before! She’s been apart of our festival in lots of different ways, and a part of our community in such an integral way. Those kinds of things remind us that we’re doing good work. It’s all the same thing. There’s no separation of life and work, there’s no “work-life” balance. It’s all of me, it’s all the work. It’s hard for me to differentiate.
Do you have a specific memory from the last 10 years that stands out in our mind?
There’s been a lot. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I’ve been thinking about my top ten moments – not to give them all away! One of the first years, there was a woman who went into labour. And then later on in the night I remember someone had a picture they were passing around on their phone like, “The baby is here!” So that was really special.
That baby is like 8 years old now! You’ve got to find that baby! Get them to the daytime Grickle!
Who is that baby! That was a crazy moment that stands out for me.
We brought Chad VanGaalen to town and did Little Grickle, which was an in-between fundraiser. That was a really special, epic, mind-blowing experience for me. I sat in the front in awe. I melted. It was a lot of work to get him here, but that was a cool partnership we did with Kazoo Fest out of Guelph.
I just have really happy memories of running through the hallways, on any given year, and people being so stoked. People being so happy, grabbing me and saying, “This is the best! I love it here!”
It’s still fun for you, even though you’re working the whole time?
Yeah! Yeah, I think so! (Laughs) It happens so fast. As soon as the doors open it’s just like, Boom! Boom! Which is why we got wise and started hiring photographers, because we need to capture this stuff.
What can we expect from daytime Grickle this year?
We’ve got drag queen story time, we’ve got some of the Rock Camp girls coming during the day to play. We are working with the Children’s Museum this year with some of the programming. Obviously, the garden is a staple. We’ve planted a garden every year for the last ten years. We’re going to do a stage decor workshop during the day with the kids, and then we’re going to use what they make on the stages at night. Another staple is Growing Chef’s always works with the tween council at the Museum to cater the green room, and I think that’s another magical, special place too. They leave notes for the bands and they write their names on the walls. They decorate and make it look cool. They make the food with so much love! It’s such a cool space where the worlds collide. The kids never see the bands and the bands never see the kids, but it’s such an important thing. It helps the bands really understand what this is all about. I got Miss T the Bubble Queen – she’s always a hit. Rebel Remedy is doing a food popup which will be great.
Every year we try to really switch it up! We’ve done everything from insect collecting, to scavenger hunts, to printmaking. This year we are focusing on daytime performances, and there will be workshops throughout the museum.
In the evening there’s some pretty big names playing – not that there isn’t usually at Grickle Grass – but especially heavy hitters this years.
Yeah! We’re feeling good about it. Obviously Shad is awesome.
What was approaching Shad like? Has he played before?
No, he hasn’t played before. Ten years ago we talked about booking Shad, we certainly knew we couldn’t afford it. Ten years ago he, in a way, was way more attainable as a booking than he is now, because his career has exploded. I’ve crossed paths with Shad so many times in the last ten years, in my career and in life. I would say instead of the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” – or whatever that is – I would say it’s the Six Degrees of Shad! That guy is so intertwined in so many ways. He cares so deeply for London. He came and did a Winter Spectacular show with us, he DJ’d for year five. We really got to know him even better then. He has such a respect for our work, we obviously have the same for him. It was a total shot in the dark. I was like, “Man, we definitely do not have the budget. Would you be interest in coming and like, basically riding this off into the sunset with us?” And we made it work, and we’re totally ecstatic. He cares about London, where ever he is in his career he has mad respect for this town, and I think that’s so amazing. He has so many connections here, people love him. That’s been a fun conversation to have.
Fet Nat is probably one of my favourite bands in Canada. That was a no brainer. I said to Adam, that’s my wish list band.
Most of the bands have ties to London. Linnea (of Ellis) lived in London for a while and has lots of connections here. Whoop-Szo is playing, obviously. Brave Moon is actually Alanna Gurr’s new project, which is so awesome and dance-y and fun. Alanna Gurr also got her piano tuner training in London –
She’s a piano tuner! So if you ever need a piano tuned you know who to call. I’m excited to have Alanna back in town. She also runs the Girls Rock Camp in Guelph, so lots of cool ties there.
Marty Kolls, of course, is local. I met Marty ten years ago through Andrew Fleet (founder of Growing Chef’s)! Marty’s husband is best friends with Andrew. And she brought baby Scarlett in big headphones. And now Scarlett goes to Rock Camp!
Whipping Wind is dusting off the old microphone and getting back in the game, which is cool. Andrew James played year one – year two? I can’t remember.
Trish (of Sum 01) is amazing and making a bit of a comeback herself. She opened for Shad last time he was in town, as well – a female MC. It’s nice to always give space to the ladies.
There’s a lot of ties to London, there’s a lot of community connections there. Even if bands aren’t living here at this moment, a lot of bands have crossed paths or spent time here which is extremely important to us – especially for year ten. We’re feeling really good about the lineup. I mean, we have to. It’s a week out!
For someone who has never been to Grickle Grass before, and this year is going to be their first – and their last! – what advice would you give them?
It gets hot and sweaty so dress appropriately. Be prepared for epic sensory overload. Stay hydrated, there’s water fountains everywhere. We want you to feel safe and comfortable, and if you do not, we want to know immediately. We have a really great team and we work really hard to make sure those things are adhered to. We’ve seen and found that this is a pretty easy festival – because it is such small quarters – to meet a stranger. In a not weird way! But you might find yourself tucked into The Street Where We Live, watching a band from a tiny grocery store, and bonding with a stranger over it. Be prepared to have fun. Hydration! Fun! Take as many photos as you can so we can have documentation of this final hurrah!